Several provisions of the Patriot Act — including Section 215, which had been used to conduct bulk surveillance of our phone records — expired on June 1 at midnight.
In a special session on Sunday, the Senate voted to consider a House-passed reform package, the USA Freedom Act, which then passed on Tuesday afternoon. President Obama signed the bill into law on Tuesday night.
Though USA Freedom doesn’t go as far as it should, its passage marks the first time the government has reined in NSA operations since before the 9/11 attacks. It ends unchecked surveillance of everyone’s phone records under the Patriot Act; that data will remain with phone companies, and the government will have to seek a court order to collect it for specific targets: a particular individual, device or account. The government can no longer sweep up details about everyone’s communications without some justification and some specific criteria to gather that information.
The new law also shines much-needed light on the proceedings of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees much of the NSA’s intelligence programs. It mandates new reporting requirements for the government’s surveillance and allows companies to report on the government’s requests for their customers’ personal information — a crucial tool for monitoring how the program is being used (or abused).
PROGRESS. Really. Data collection, of itself, is not a big problem. How it is used is a huge concern. It seems unlikely that our information-dominated and fear-based society will stop collecting data, including phones, email, location, financial transactions, and photos. Fighting to prevent all such collection, is therefore, as far as I can see, a waste of time. This first step in transparency, letting “We the people” know about government requests for our personal information, in crucial to our freedom as citizens. This country of ours likes to brag about our accomplishments in promoting democracy, but we can’t do that while simultaneously eroding the very freedoms that mark our uniqueness as a self-governing republic.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, which the government uses to spy on our online activity, will expire in 2017 if it isn’t addressed before then.